Most of us in tennis won’t argue that today’s game requires high levels of explosive strength - or as it’s often called - power. But many disregard some of the most influential exercises that contribute to this quality: olympic weightlifting movements.
In case you’re not familiar with olympic weightlifting movements, they consist of the clean, snatch, jerk and any variations or derivatives of these 3 lifts (videos examples are found throughout this post).
Note - we’ll refer to them as either weightlifting movements or Olympic (Oly) lifts throughout this post.
Why Many Don’t Use Weightlifting Movements
Many still haven’t fully accepted the notion that lifting weights can benefit sporting performance substantially. This is especially true when we’re talking about weightlifting movements - and even more true when it comes to tennis players using them during training.
There are a variety of reasons (myths) for this - here are just a few:
Increased risk of injury
Not ‘sport-specific’ (in our case, ‘tennis-specific’)
Youths are too young to perform them
We Use Them - Here’s Why
While I hear the concerns, I feel it necessary to outline why most aren’t warranted. I also want to state the benefits; that way, you can make a more informed decision whether these types of exercises are right for you, your players and your particular tennis setting.
Below, we’ll outline 10 benefits for the inclusion of weightlifting exercises with tennis players. Before we do, I’d like to mention one important characteristic of these lifts. When executing them, despite the ‘relatively’ high loads that are employed, the aim is always to be move the load as quickly as possible. And when using a barbell to perform these lifts, the that the barbell travels - from beginning to end - is quite large. Combining distance and time makes this movement a highly fast/explosive activity. A big reason we use them in training.
10 Reasons Tennis Players Should Perform Weightlifting Movements
1. Develop Leg (& Total Body) Power
Olympic lifts differ from other forms of strength & weight training in that in order to lift the weight and catch it in the appropriate position (shoulders for the clean and overhead for the snatch), we have to develop force very quickly. This is termed, rate of force development; it’s important for tennis because time is certainly not on our side, especially as we get to higher and higher levels of the game.
With these lifts, we improve our muscles ability to recruit fast-twitch fibres - in effect, after this type of training, we can call upon them at greater rates. So imagine having this ability on the tennis court - being able to ‘call upon’ type 2x fibres at faster rates can help us get into striking positions sooner, get more power when hitting and overall, allows players to move more effectively.
Furthermore, while the power that’s developed is primarily in the frontal plane - and a lot of the actions in tennis occur in the sagittal + transverse planes - we’re still getting the appropriate triple extension required for many actions. This includes first step, serve + groundstroke accelerations, recovery movements and so on. This is the lower-body component we’re referring to - getting the weight off the ground in a power clean requires high levels of force (and doing it quickly results in large power outputs).
But not only that, with the snatch and the jerk (and their variations), it’s possible to get lots of quality overhead power - an important factor given that tennis requires a variety of overhead (and above shoulder) actions….serve, smash, high forehand, high volley…
2. Improvements in Strength
Like we said, the primary weightlifting movements include the snatch, the clean and the jerk. Because of the inherent characteristics of each of these lifts, they are each loaded differently. For instance, while the snatch and the jerk do require high levels of overhead strength, the loads used won’t be as great as those utilized during the clean (unless you’re a competitive weightlifter, in which case, your clean and your jerk must be matched).
The snatch is therefore a great exercise to improve speed factors - the bar has to travel a longer distance and less overall load is used (velocity = distance/time). This is one reason why we program that snatch more often - it targets speed more than strength.
The clean on the other hand, can be loaded to a much greater degree (doesn’t have to, but it can). We’re still getting a lot of power generating features when the load is greater, but we’re also getting more strength benefits then what we’d see during the snatch. This is mainly due to the finish of this lift - on the shoulders. So because the bar doesn’t have to travel as far and there’s not as much of a demand from an overhead standpoint, we’re able to add more load - this allows us to produce more ground reaction forces (force x velocity = power).
These are just 2 examples - other exist. But the key, as you can see, is that depending on the goal, the lifts can be loaded more (or less) to elicit more strength or more speed adaptations.
3. Similarities Between the Snatch and the Serve
When we look at research on muscle activation patterns in the serve, we can often see a lot of activity through the cocking, acceleration and deceleration phases. While many muscles of the shoulder are involved - ranging from the rotator cuff, the deltoid etc - each have distinct activation patterns depending on the phase.
This is similarly true when looking at activation patterns during the snatch - a highly demanding overhead movement. Let’s compare some of these patterns to showcase their similarities.
During the cocking phase (image below), the supraspinatus (part of the rotator cuff group) has been reported to have a MVIC (maximum voluntary isometric contraction) readings of 53% (Escamilla and Andrews 2009). Compare that to 125% during the transition phase of the snatch movement - the moment between pulling and catching the bar overhead (Ernst & Jansen 2015).
In another study, Kibler et al (2007) found high levels of MVIC activation for the teres minor (81% at its peak) - and that during the entire serving cycle, the teres minor was activated 70% of the time. In the snatch, the teres minor also experiences very high activation patterns (between 60-125%) and is activated throughout the entire movement.
While the snatch has obvious higher levels of activation, the key takeaway here is that both activities place a large demand on the rotator cuff - the snatch in terms of more load and the serve in terms of moderate load performed over many repetitions. If we simply look at the principle of progressive overload, we can see the value of loading the shoulder/rotator cuff with higher resistances than are needed - it will provide structural benefits that will likely transfer to the overhead actions.
Furthermore, if we look at the kinetics and kinematics of these movements, what we find is that on the serve, there’s a lot of stress during the deceleration phase - shoulder goes from an extreme external rotation to internal rotation, at high speeds, and forces are being absorbed by the entire posterior shoulder, upper back, lats, obliques etc. During a snatch, on the other hand, we are primarily performing a pulling action - so the posterior shoulder is acting concentrically to pull the weight upward and to rotate the shoulder. It also requires a large amount of stability, proprioception, isometric strength etc; in order to catch and hold the load in an overhead position. Many use 5 or more exercises to train all of these differing qualities. You can get all of these benefits (and more), with one exercise.
4. Mobility Improvements
While there’s no denying that there are prerequisite flexibility requirements prior to loading the clean and the snatch (which undoubtedly should be done anyway as part of an elite player’s program) - the movements themselves can improve range of motion and mobility in a variety of areas, and under higher velocity conditions.
Consider this for a moment - during the offseason, a baseball pitcher will lose some of their shoulder external rotation. Generally, the way they get it back is by….restarting pitching. You see, the act of high-velocity pitching (with the help of the baseball acting as a load), enhances external rotation of the throwing shoulder. The same happens - to a lesser extent - with serving, snatching and jerking.
All this to say that when first implementing olympic lifts - especially the snatch (when considering the mobility required in the shoulders) - the progressions should be appropriate. This will ensure that a) the various joints that require greater mobility aren’t loaded to extreme degrees right off the bat and b) getting more low-load, high-volume reps will help slowly improve mobility in those regions (and help pattern the movement).
Here are just a few more joints that can benefit from olympic lifting, in terms of mobility:
Ankle dorsi/plantar flexion
Hip flexion & extension
Some thoracic extension
Shoulder flexion, external rotation
5. Enhanced Body Composition
Strength training in an of itself has been shown to improve body composition more so than any other form of training. This has a lot to do with the metabolic activity of muscle - and thus, increases in resting metabolic rate as we increase lean body mass. Why is this important? Tennis players are generally quite lean - and body fat % (along with strength to mass & power to mass ratios), are key performance indicators that should be monitored.
A lot of evidence has indicated that high strength to mass ratios have concomitant high correlations with better change-of-direction abilities, power outputs and vertical jump heights. All of these are important in today’s game as they directly affect the ability of players to move better - that means getting to the ball, recovering after shots, and being able to do this many times during a point, set and match.
Olympic lifts are tremendous from this perspective as they not only have a strength benefit, but they also generate very high power outputs - more so than any other type of weight room activity. And while many believe that lifting can add too much ‘mass’, this is not necessarily the case. The sport of weightlifting itself is based on weight categories. When you look at the lighter class categories, you’ll notice that lifters are quite lean...not only that, they stay lean but continue to increase their strength & power levels during the developmental years. How do you figure that?
This one is more anecdotal than anything. There are so many derivatives and variations that can be created from these lifts, that in our training, we use them almost every week during the entire year.
During the general prep phase, we might progress to some heavier power cleans (vid above) or a variety of pulling only derivatives (which many coaches employ to target force development without the catching component). In the specific prep phase, we might do lighter and more speed focused hang power snatches or split snatches - these are great to work on the lead anchor leg for forehand and backhand groundies. And during pre-comp or competitive weeks, we might do 1-arm DB snatches or MB snatch throws to maintain speed/power qualities but that don’t tax the nervous system in the same way as more loaded variations would.
All that to say that we can target lower body power, upper-body power - focus more on a power through a very targeted range of motion and so on. And using other types of implements like dumbbells and med balls have a much lower technical component. While I wouldn’t prescribe Oly lifts unless I’m working one-on-one with a player, I often program these variations with remote athletes. They are much easier to execute and a large portion of the benefits are still realized.
7. Injury Prevention
Like we mentioned in the intro, most steer clear of using Oly lifts because of fear of injury. But the data (Hedrick & Wada 2008) doesn’t support this - injury rates in tennis and olympic weightlifting are both quite low and similar (about 0.001 injury per 100 hours of exposure). In fact, strength training itself - when properly prescribed and progressed - generally helps stave off injury by better preparing the various structures to tolerate and adapt to progressively higher loads.
Weight training, in general (including weightlifting movements) can also increase bone density. Not to mention, high-speed exercises under load (like the Oly lifts) are important in stimulating bone remodeling and enhancing bone tensile strength. Both these features can influence injury prevention (and kind of debunk the myth that lifting before puberty will stunt bone growth..it won’t!).
In terms of getting injured as a result of weightlifting….here’s a report from Hedrick & Wada 2008:
The low injury rate in weightlifting appears to hold true in children training and competing in weightlifting as well. Using data from a 2-year period, it was determined that while performance improved, there were no injuries and no training days lost as a result of injury in a group of children who participated in an average of 8 competitions.
Here’s a look at the sequencing of body parts during a weightlifting movement:
“To complete the movement, the entire lower extremity kinetic chain is employed. Thereafter, force transmission occurs via the trunk and upper limb to the barbell. It is said that the ability to successfully execute the lifting movement depends not only on the athlete's ability to generate sufficient magnitude of joint power, but also on the organization of the phases of power production and absorption into an appropriate temporal sequence.”
In the last sentence, we can substitute any sporting action that requires high levels of power along with appropriate temporal sequencing - just replace “lifting movement” with “tennis serve” and you get the point. Because of their sequencing, both the snatch and the clean include the major muscle groups and involve multiple joints. This is said to improve both “intra/inter muscle coordination which has a positive effect on neural efficiency and balance”.
Essentially, this adaptation has favourable benefits when looking at improvements in motor control function. Studies (Faigenbaum 2009) have shown that young athletes who perform weightlifting are better able to pick up on other complex skills - such as many of the complex skills required in tennis.
While yes, these lifts require a high level of technical proficiency, we can say that about most sporting actions (that is if you want to be good at them). Some learn faster than others, but in general, the more skills athletes can possess from other sports, the more able they are to transfer some of these overlapping abilities - there’s even research to support this (Schmidt and Lee 2014). This is only one reason I encourage coaches to use these lifts with junior, developing players.
9. Hormonal Factors
It’s well established that higher levels of testosterone are linked to greater abilities to generate power and force. Implementing these lifts as a one off won’t, however, elicit the appropriate adaptations - in other words, it takes time for any system (including the neuroendocrine system), to adapt to a stimulus. How long? According to Hedrick & Wada, 2008:
Previous studies have demonstrated the potential to increase testosterone levels during a 2-year period of training in weightlifters. This increase in testosterone is well correlated to one’s power generating ability. When weightlifters of varying training experience were compared, those with more than 2 years of experience were able to elicit increased testosterone levels in response to training, whereas those with less than 2 years of experience were not.
In acute periods, some authors (Haff et al 2008) have found that it may be best to look at the testosterone:cortisol ratio as an indicator of athlete preparedness. In fact, what you’ll often find is that intense training will decrease the ratio - could be one reason we see athletes ‘going through the motions’ in week 2 or 3 of an intensive training block. But once volumes of work are reduced, the rebound effect often leads to T:C ratios that are much higher than were observed prior to training. This usually takes 1-3 weeks - the variability in time is due to inter individual differences.
In my opinion, this hormonal interaction can be critical for female players as other authors have reported that their T:C ratios can fluctuate drastically - and weightlifting seems to have some of the most positive, drastic impacts on this ratio.
10. Sharpened Psychological Abilities
There’s something to be said when you’re standing in front of a loaded bar that demands both full intensity and laser sharp concentration. As someone who has personally used weightlifting movements with my own programs, I can tell you that the moment just before attempting to lift a heavy load, there are definite nerves that arise. Can you say that about any other type of so called ‘off-court training’?
And when you successfully complete that lift, there’s a euphoric feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. This sense that “if I can do that - something I never thought I could - perhaps there’s more I can give in other areas of training & competition”.
Not to mention the learning involved in mastering these movements - they take time. And it therefore takes a certain type of person (and a certain amount of discipline and patience), to get significantly better at performing these lifts...but the benefits are well worth it.
Future Directions and Final Comments
There was one study I’ve come across that incorporated an Oly lift with tennis players. This was a PAP (post-activation potentiation) study - I’ve written about PAP in the past - you can check out that post here. The results of that study weren’t positive but many limitations did exist.
It’s my belief that future studies should aim at a) incorporating olympic lifts into a longer-term training intervention study (at least 4 weeks) and b) perform some correlative analyses between the lifts and various tennis actions.
I’m also not saying that you absolutely have to incorporate these exercises - many of the benefits that we explored can be seen with other types of lifts that are less technical (barbell jump squats are one example). Some may also be limited because they don’t have access to proper coaching. With my remote athletes, unless they have experience with these lifts, I never prescribe them. With athletes I see 3-5 days a week, they’re definitely going to incorporate some form of these lifts almost every week of the year. It’s up to you to determine whether they’re the right fit for you or not.
Just know this, these aren’t ‘tennis-specific’ but they can develop general strength & power abilities along with specialized speed & power for tennis - all of which will help enhance ‘tennis-specific’ training (which is what you’re doing on the tennis court during practices). Not to mention, you’ll get a TON more athletic - and the way that today’s game is being played, that’s what we should all be aiming for.
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